Roxanne, you don’t have to put on that red light,
Those days are over,
You don’t have to sell your body to the night…
So perhaps it’s not exactly what The Police had in mind when they wrote Roxanne, but replace ‘red’ with ‘green’ and you have, what I believe to be, a pretty accurate representation of the Steam Greenlight situation. Jim Sterling of Jimquisition et al has a real problem with this, and I do too – and rather than just regurgitate what he’s already said (because he’s infinitely more famous and, let’s be honest, more charismatic than I am), I’d like to add a different slant. The crux of Jim’s argument comes down to how ‘asset recycling’ (more on that later) is an issue for players and Greenlight as a whole, due to problems relating to issues as far flung as copyright and player experience. I’d like to talk a little first about the process of asset recycling, and then the problems that it produces for developers attempting to get seen on Greenlight.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Unity (and games design) nomenclature, ‘assets’ are pieces of a game, building blocks from which we create levels and environments; including sound assets, 3D modelled assets, and user interface assets. Unity facilitates the buying and selling of assets through their Asset Store, a place where developers without the time, skill, or inclination to build their own assets can purchase them.
Now, for the record, I have nothing wrong with this process. For example, I’ve built games where my time is better spent working on the AI than modelling a complete bathroom suite for the purposes of immersion, which is where the Unity Asset Store is in the perfect position to step in. If developers wish to sell their assets, to further fund their own development goals, that’s fine by me. If developers wish to buy assets to enhance their games’ appearance or play style, also fine. We can’t all be experts in everything. The problem is ‘asset recycling’.
Now, some people have the inclination to build a full game, then sell it on with most of the flesh removed from the bones. I guess this is all to do with lowering the bar to development, but the problem then becomes that people think they can just add the bare minimum back to those bones, and resell the asset pack as a complete ‘game’. This is what Jim Sterling eloquently dubbed ‘asset recycling’. I think to call it ‘recycling’ is a little too kind. It’s more like ‘asset laundering’, if we’re honest, but unfortunately it is perfectly legal under the Unity Store’s current agreements.
I think it’s obvious why this is a problem for gamers; games can be pushed through Greenlight, with a little trickery, and suddenly the indie market is flooded with cheap knock-offs and there is nothing good left to play. But how about for developers? What’s the problem there?
The Wood for the Trees
Imagine, if you will, a hellish world in which the only playable games are reiterations of the same asset packs, with slightly different textures and a new title. Enter our hero, an original and kick-ass indie title, ready to take down the ways of old. Sounds fun, right? Only this is a problem that is happening right now, and respectable developers (people we can safely call ‘developers’, unlike the people we call ‘asset launderers’) struggle against the tide of crappery every day. How do you get seen in a market that’s flooded? As I mentioned before, you can push anything through Greenlight with a little trickery (not that I’m accusing anyone directly…), so how do genuine developers with genuinely good titles get seen? It’s a real problem, and one that Steam will have to fix with more than just a mandatory sign-up fee.
Integrity, or what’s left of it
I think my main problem, however, is one of artistic integrity. Asset launderers lack integrity in the biggest of ways, and unfortunately it tars all of us with the same brush. Like it or not, asset launderers are shaping the name of ‘indie’, and soon people who call themselves ‘indie developers’ will be assumed to be nothing but money-grabbing monkeys sat at computers, with a few cheap assets and a Greenlight key.
If that sounds dramatic, it should do. This is a real problem. And having bounced around a few indie studios, both of the developer kind and the asset laundering kind, I can tell you that the struggle to not only get your work seen, but to keep your integrity and be seen as a ‘proper developer’, is a real one.
Greenlight and ‘The System’
A lot of the onus for fixing the Greenlight system should fall to Steam itself, the main problem currently being that the bar is too low and asset launderers can easily hop over it and get their game listed on Greenlight. As to how we set the bar higher, to discourage people out for a quick turnaround (and a quick return on their expenditure), I don’t know – I’m not in a position to say. But it’s clear that something has to come from the community, that developers (that is, real developers) should put together some kind of ruleset by which to play. But when I say ‘community’ I also mean players – that’s right, we have a responsibility to help fix the system.
What can one person do?
It might seem daunting, thinking that I’m placing the emphasis on you the player to fix the behemoth mess that is Steam Greenlight right now, but as a community we can make real differences. Spend time on Greenlight, if you’re a PC gamer, making sure to upvote things that grab your attention. Do a little background research into assets and the Unity Asset Store, and downvote anything that seems to be a cheap rip-off of someone else’s hard work. Above all, conduct yourself with the integrity that real developers do – do not play asset laundered games, just because you think they’ll be a cheap laugh (here’s looking at you, Mr Sterling), unless you actually aim to educate on the damage that these types of games are doing. I think the best we can do is pay them no mind, show them that we will not rise to their bait, and that our hard-earned money will go towards supporting real developers doing what real developers do best; making games.